No composer changed the symphony more radically than Beethoven. Whilst his First (1801) pays its respects to the 18th-century classical tradition of Haydn and Mozart, each of the eight successive symphonies follows a unique trajectory heralding a new era: composers were no longer subservient to their court patrons and could assert their right to individual expression.
So it’s little wonder that Beethoven’s colossal symphonic legacy both inspired and intimidated later 19th-century composers. From the moment these works entered the repertory, conductors viewed the performance of a Beethoven cycle as a litmus test of their achievements.
Battle lines as to the ‘ideal’ interpretation of the symphonies were established at an early stage between Mendelssohn, whose performances were mercurial and precise, and Wagner’s more fluid and nuanced approaches.
This dichotomy is mirrored in current approaches with opposed views of the music emanating from Riccardo Chailly on one hand and Christian Thielemann on the other.
The best recording of Beethoven’s Symphonies
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly (2011)
Decca 478 3492
With works of such contrasting character and such an extended recording history, suggesting a cycle that is recommendable on all accounts becomes almost impossible.
Any serious collector will not only want to own several versions, but also savour some inspired recordings of individual symphonies – for example, Carlos Kleiber’s legendary account of the Fifth.
At the same time, in comparing currently available cycles on a symphony-by-symphony basis and in a highly competitive market, it becomes evident that some cycles achieve a greater level of consistency than others.
While certainly not subscribing to the notion that the most recent recordings must of necessity be the best, I found myself most completely captivated by Riccardo Chailly’s 2011 cycle with the Gewandhaus Orchestra.
Captured in superb sound by Decca, these are highly-charged volatile performances, owing much of their clarity and precision to recent approaches by period instrument ensembles and played here with breathtaking brilliance by one of the finest orchestras in the world.
Chailly can be too impetuous for his own good in some of the faster movements, where an occasional bit of poise might provide necessary emotional relief, and it’s unfortunate that the bass soloist in his opening entry to the Finale of the Ninth momentarily loses his bearings. But these seem minor flaws given the engrossing nature of the set as whole.
Three more great recordings of all Beethoven’s symphonies
Vienna Philharmonic and Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestras/Wilhelm Furtwängler (1948-54)
EMI 567 4962
It’s a testament to Furtwängler’s genius that recordings made over 60 years ago and in sometimes recessed mono sound remain mainstays of the catalogue. The qualities that the conductor brings to Beethoven are legion, not least a wonderful fluidity in the shaping of the melodic line which takes full account of the tonal conflicts that lie at the heart of Beethoven’s thinking.
In terms of tempo fluctuation, Furtwängler might seem much more wilful than many other interpreters, but the musical insights can be visionary. No interpreter, even modern-day admirers such as Daniel Barenboim and Thielemann, come close to projecting the transformation from minor to major at the outset of the Finale of the Fifth with the same awesome impact.
Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique/Sir John Eliot Gardiner (1994)
DG 477 8643
From the 1970s onwards, historically informed performances on period instruments have stimulated listeners to hear different things in Beethoven’s music. Leaner textures serve to intensify Beethoven’s orchestration, bringing new and vivid colours to familiar works.
Any suggestion, however, that a resort to earlier notions of performance practice results in interpretations that are dry and inflexible is way off the mark, for the approaches are just as varied as on modern instruments.
For example, those who prefer a more fluid subtly nuanced view of Beethoven will warm to Frans Brüggen’s recent set on Glossa which offers some wonderful insights. Nonetheless, there’s a palpable sense of commitment and imagination in John Eliot Gardiner’s invigorating 1990s recordings that has you at the edge of your seat.
Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä (2004-8)
BIS SACD 1825/6
There are two particular strengths in Osmo Vänskä’s beautifully engineered SACD recordings made between 2004 and 2008. First, the Finnish conductor manages to capture the essence of Beethoven’s thinking through his painstaking attention to inner details.
Second, he has established a sense of partnership with a first-rate orchestra and secures urgent and incisive playing. In general, Vänskä has more interesting things to say about the earlier symphonies, where the performances are strongly characterised and fleet of foot.
But the set is a superb achievement, illustrating the point that great Beethoven performances are not the exclusive province of the central European orchestral tradition.
And one to avoid…
Although Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra gave compelling performances at the 2012 Proms, this set does not quite ignite the same spark as those concerts. Despite the orchestra’s energy and enthusiasm, it doesn’t possess the subtlety of timbre and precision of ensemble one finds in other versions.
Another issue is Barenboim’s propensity towards heaviness which can make some of the interpretations sound stolid.